History of nonviolent movements


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Look at the history of your country and you will find episodes of nonviolent action - demonstrations, strikes, boycotts or other forms of popular non-cooperation. They might not be referred to as "nonviolent action", and might not even be mentioned in school books, but they are there, a potential source of inspiration and evidence that nonviolent action in your context is not the invention of foreign agitators. The causes will vary - for the rights of workers and peasants, freedom for slaves, the right to vote for women or people without property, for racial equality, for gender equality, for freedom from occupation, against corruption, against price rises, against military corruption - in short encompassing a range of forms of injustice and domination. However, it was not until the twentieth century - and in particular the campaigns of Gandhi in South Africa and India - that movements discussed nonviolent action as a conscious strategy for social transformation.

Gandhi was convinced that nonviolence had a particular power - both in its effect on the people who took an action, and on those at whom the action was directed. He saw that social solidarity can overcome efforts to dominate, exploit or otherwise oppress a population. It is not just enough to oppose an adversary, blaming them for everything, but also people have to look at their own responsibilities and their own behaviour - freedom and justice are not just to be demanded but to be practised, and to be the basis on which a movement constructs itself. Gandhi wrote streams of articles developing his ideas about nonviolence. He was not the first to observe that those who rule depend on the cooperation of those they rule, but he made this central to his strategies of civil resistance: "the first principle of nonviolence", he once wrote, "is non-cooperation with everything humiliating". Gandhi was not the most systematic thinker about nonviolence - he preferred to talk about his experience as "experiments with Truth" - but he insisted on certain fundamentals. One was the need for campaigns to maintain a nonviolent discipline. Another was the central importance of constructive activity addressing problems among the population - work that people could organise themselves in their daily life. In the case of Gandhi and the context of colonised India, this constructive programme expanded to include reducing inter-religious hostility, tackling discrimination on gender or caste lines, countering illiteracy and ignorance on sanitation, and promoting self-sufficient production of food and clothes.

Most participants in the campaigns initiated by Gandhi shared only some of his principles - they were prepared to use nonviolence to free India from British colonialism, but few had Gandhi's utter commitment to nonviolence as a way of life, and indeed most conventional political leaders gave only symbolic importance to the constructive programme. This pattern has frequently been repeated, nonviolent action being effective when used by broad movements, where most participants accept nonviolence in practical terms as the appropriate strategy for their situation but only a minority express a philosophical commitment. The example of the Indian independence struggle had a huge influence on subsequent movements against colonialism, especially in Africa - and people in a wide range of contexts began to study what makes nonviolence effective and how it can be used even more successfully. Sixty years after Gandhi's death, nonviolent activists are still "experimenting with truth" and a field of study has grown up about what makes nonviolence effective.

What works where

The style of nonviolence varies a lot according to context. Since the term "people power" was coined when the Marcos regime in the Philippines was brought down in 1986, and especially since the downfall of Milošević in Serbia in 2000, some observers have talked of an "action template" - meaning popular nonviolent action overthrowing a corrupt and authoritarian regime attempting to win elections by fraud. Of course, there are similarities between the downfall of Milošević and "people power" episodes elsewhere. Indeed, some of the Serbs who used nonviolence so creatively against Milošević have now become involved in training these other movements. However, in each situation, the movements have to make their own analysis of what is appropriate and what will work.

Many people are sceptical about the power of nonviolence against entrenched and brutal regimes. In such situations any resistance is likely to be difficult. Nonviolence does not offer a "quick fix" in these situations - and neither does armed struggle. Some idealistic movements have turned to armed struggle only to find themselves increasingly separated from the population, depending on extortion and kidnapping to maintain themselves, and in short degenerating into armed bands. Nonviolence aims to work differently. By expanding the social spaces that a movement can occupy, and by giving voice to what the regime requires should not be said, it can set processes of fundamental change in motion. Nonviolent action in the face of torture, "disappearances" and death squads in various parts of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s aimed to rebuild a social solidarity that could overcome fear (see article Chile: Gandhi's Insights Gave People Courage to Defy Chile's Dictatorship).

In the former Soviet bloc, many were cautious about resistance, not wishing to provoke repression or Soviet military intervention. In 1970, four strikers in Gdansk, Poland, were shot dead, so when Solidarnosc was formed in 1980, the Gdansk strikers avoided street confrontations but locked themselves inside their shipyard instead. They aspired to a different society, but now limited their demands to an essential first step - the recognition of free trade unions. A limited objective behind which all Polish workers could unite. Polish intellectuals described this as "the self-limiting revolution". Despite such caution, Solidarnosc's mobilising power scared the regime into imposing martial law and imprisoned many activists. But within a few years the time came to go beyond these self-imposed limits, to make other demands and to risk more provocative forms of nonviolent action, not just in Poland but throughout the Soviet bloc.

Most readers of this handbook live in societies where there is more "freedom of speech" than under Soviet Communism or Latin American military dictatorships, but where activists tend to complain of social "apathy" while the public is bombarded with images trying to get us to buy more. Violence in our societies is most likely to be hidden away or accepted as "the status quo", the way things are - the many forms of state violence right up to its weapons of mass destruction, the violence of social deprivation and environmental devastation, the violence manipulated by remote puppetmasters pulling strings across the globe.

In these situations, social movements have a wide choice of actions, and boundaries that are continually changing - actions that broke new ground yesterday have become merely routine today, even the disruptive has become contained.

The role of pacifists

We in the WRI embrace nonviolence as a matter of principle. We recognise that this commitment makes us a minority, and requires us to work with people who do not necessarily share our pacifist principles. We want to look beyond rhetoric or short-term shock tactics to develop forms of active nonviolence that challenge systems of oppression and seek to construct alternatives. This means defining goals that make sense to a spectrum of people broader than just pacifists or anti-militarists, and also using methods and forms of organisation that are attractive to people who not necessarily have a pacifist philosophy.

Because pacifists refuse to resort to organised violence, we need to invest our creative energy in trying to develop nonviolent alternatives. Historically, pacifists have played a vital innovatory role in social movements, developing nonviolent methods of action, both at the level of tactics and in forms of organising. For instance, the first US "freedom rides" against racial segregation in the 1940s - racially mixed groups of riders boarded long-distance buses to defy the rules on segregation - were a pacifist initiative. So too was the British nonviolent direct action against weapons in the 1950s. The creative use of nonviolence of these groups opened spaces for a much more widespread use of nonviolence by the mass movements that followed.

Nonviolence training was developed in the USA by the freedom ride organisers. Initially the role of nonviolence training was to prepare people for the kind of violence that they might meet in nonviolent actions against segregation. However,in the past 30 years nonviolence training has played an essential role in promoting more participatory forms of movement organisation.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King became such towering figures within their own movements that some people have the impression that successful nonviolence depends on "charismatic" leadership. For us in WRI, however, nonviolent action should be seen as a source of social empowerment - strengthening the capacities of all participants without depending on superhuman leaders. Therefore we have advocated more participatory forms of decision-making, promoted the adoption of forms of organisation based on people grouping into groups (see p ), and expanded nonviolence training to include tools for participatory strategy assessment and development.


Sometimes, it seems that nonviolence just happens - that thousands of people converge to do something - but usually this takes organisation, and especially if the action is not simply a reaction to some event publicised in the mass media but a step in a campaign, an effort to set an agenda for social change. The image from outside might be of one more of less unified set of people. However, closer in, you see the movement consists of various networks each reaching out through particular constituencies, of distinct organisations each with its own themes and emphases, of several inter-connected campaigns taking up aspects of an issue. The contribution of nonviolent attitudes, methods of organisation and forms of action is to strengthen the ability of these diverse elements to act in concert and to win over new supporters.


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